Just a year ago, Councilman David Alvarez was a relative unknown.
The soft-spoken San Diego native regularly showed up at events and press conferences without staffers, and usually left without facing a single reporter.
But the mayoral race, where he was buoyed by his own compelling personal narrative and millions of dollars from labor groups, has catapulted him to a contender getting attention from the New York Times and President Barack Obama.
Neither was enough to propel him into the mayor’s office. Republican challenger Kevin Faulconer decisively defeated Alvarez Tuesday.
But the groundswell that emerged to support his candidacy – high-profile national Democrats parachuted in for campaign appearances, and more than 600 volunteers gathered the Saturday before the election walking door to door to rally voters on his behalf – marks a sudden transformation in Alvarez’s nascent political career.
It’s a reality even Alvarez himself likely couldn’t have imagined just months ago.
In late fall 2012, just before San Diegans selected Bob Filner as their next mayor, ushering in a new focus on neighborhood needs, San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera met with Alvarez to talk about education issues. The topic of Alvarez’s political future came up.
Barrera, who now leads the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, recalled Alvarez saying he didn’t plan to run for Congress or the state Legislature after his stint on the City Council, both natural stepping stones for former District 8 City Council members. Alvarez said he’d be interested in working in education, perhaps he’d open a school focused on career technical studies.
“I think he thought he would serve as a Council member for a couple terms, do the best that he could and then go into some sort of youth-serving role,” Barrera said.
Fast-forward about nine months. The new progressive mayor who had so excited San Diego Democrats had imploded. Filner resigned Aug. 30.
Democrats feared Filner’s progressive vision might be shattered without a new champion. As they sought one, Alvarez waited to see whether more seasoned Democrats might step up.
In a Labor Day interview with San Diego CityBeat, Alvarez publicly weighed a run and seemed to cheer on a former City Councilwoman and the current City Council president, thinking they’d have a better shot. He also made it clear he wasn’t convinced former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who’d only recently joined the Democratic Party, would fight for progressive ideas if he were elected mayor.
Within days, a handful of high-profile Democrats – including Frye and Gloria – passed on the race. Only Fletcher remained.
Alvarez announced his candidacy on Sept. 5, promising to push the agenda Filner campaigned on. He wanted to ensure those priorities didn’t fall by the wayside.
I’m in. Filed my intent to run. San Diego needs a mayor who cares about the future of working families & all of our neighborhoods.
— David Alvarez (@AlvarezSD) September 5, 2013
The next day, the umbrella group for the region’s unions overwhelmingly endorsed him.
But there were plenty of doubts even then.
Mickey Kasparian, president of the Labor Council, and Barrera immediately fielded questions about their choice. The powerful Labor Council’s backing translates into millions of dollars and many Democrats worried the group’s endorsement of Alvarez over Fletcher would only foster division, handing the race to Republicans.
“Everyone was coming to us and saying, ‘You guys are crazy,’” Barrera said. “‘Why are you getting behind this candidate that nobody’s ever heard of?’”
Initial polls seemed to support that argument.
Alvarez trailed Fletcher by 14 points in a Sept. 23 U-T San Diego/10 News survey.
Then the union-supported campaign machine kicked into gear. Labor Council walkers fanned across the city, but particularly in communities south of Interstate 8, to encourage voters to support Alvarez.
His name and photo appeared in countless ads. Meanwhile, both the left-leaning teacher’s union and conservative groups attacked Fletcher.
Come Nov. 19, Alvarez managed to secure 7,385 more votes than Fletcher. He was headed to the general election.
Suddenly Alvarez supporters faced a ticking clock: They essentially had less than three months – much of them dominated by holiday distractions – to persuade Fletcher supporters to vote for Alvarez.
He secured a flurry of big endorsements, and large groups gathered on nights and weekends to knock on doors for Alvarez.
“We really had to get people to understand who David Alvarez was and what he was all about,” Kasparian said.
Kasparian believed if they got to know the Barrio Logan native who was first in his family to graduate from college and who made improving the city’s underserved neighborhoods his mission, they’d surely vote for him.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. He only won about 45 percent of the vote.
State Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, one of the first top Democrats to endorse Alvarez last year, was among those who tried to stay positive Tuesday night.
No matter the election returns, Atkins said, Alvarez walked away with a higher profile.
“I think David’s star has been on the rise for some time,” Atkins said. “He had the courage to take on the race no one thought he could win. Whatever the outcome tonight, he’s someone who’s going to be watched by many now.”